March 2018 marks 80 years since the death of Gabriele D’Annunzio. Variously a poet, playwright, politician and decorated soldier, D’Annunzio emerged from the first World War as the high priest of Italian ultra-nationalism. In the latter capacity, he earned a dubious sobriquet as the “John the Baptist of Fascism”, while he also offered moral and military support to the embattled Irish Republic.
In 1919, D’Annunzio formed a private army that annexed the city of Fiume (modern day Rijeka, Croatia) to Italy. Formerly an outpost of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Fiume was home to a divided population of ethnic Italians and Croats, whose shared hostility had led to a period of lawlessness and the armed intervention of Anglo-French peacekeepers.
D’Annunzio’s actions caused an international outcry that tied Italy’s hands.
With Rome unwilling to endorse the coup, Fiume emerged as a rogue city-state that electrified the region by defying international opinion and mocking the cautious Italian government.
As the stand-off progressed, D’Annunzio cultivated a form of politics that subsequently appealed to Italian and European fascists. Indeed, Fiume devised the soon-to-be familiar fascist liturgy of mass rallies, demagogic speechifying, black-shirted vigilantism, Roman salutes, and corporatist administration. Simultaneously, the city became a centre for international revolution. This development reflected D’Annunzio’s perception of Italy as a “proletarian power” predestined to support the young and non-aligned nations of the postwar world.
The Vatican and Washington, both of which were crucial to the wider Irish diplomatic strategy, regarded D'Annunzio with contempt
In this context, he proclaimed the portentously titled League of Fiume. Conceived as an anti-League of Nations, this project aimed to stir up trouble in the Balkans and to undermine the British Empire. D’Annunzio resented Great Britain because of a perceived betrayal of Italian interests at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference.
The League of Fiume thus worked to arm Egyptian and Irish revolutionaries.
Through piracy and corruption, the Fiumans had amassed an impressive arsenal, including tens of thousands of rifles hijacked from an Italian military vessel en route to resupply the “White” side of Russia’s ongoing civil war.
Shortly thereafter, D’Annunzio’s heralds visited the Irish College in Rome, which was then a centre for Sinn Féin propaganda.
The visitors tried to solicit a Dáil statement of support for the League of Fiume, in return for which they offered to arm the IRA.
The proposal drew a cautious response, however. While Irish republicans appreciated D’Annunzio’s Anglophobia, they rejected his other interests, which included philandering (he boasted of 1,000 “conquests“), anti-clericalism, and a hatred of American prowess and culture.
As such, the Vatican and Washington, both of which were crucial to the wider Irish diplomatic strategy, regarded D’Annunzio with contempt.
Unsurprisingly therefore, the revolutionary government in Ireland did not endorse the League of Fiume, though this did not prevent Irish envoys from privately pursuing D’Annunzio’s stockpile.
The Milan-based journalist and fascist leader Benito Mussolini, who supported the Irish Republic through his influential newspaper Il Popolo d'Italia, facilitated the discussions.
Yet despite Mussolini’s efforts, and those of Irish envoys that included the future president of Ireland Seán T Ó Ceallaigh, and George Gavan Duffy, the conspiracy never became a reality. Upon learning that the British had detailed knowledge of the planned gun-running, Michael Collins aborted the mission in early 1921.
With high ambitions of his own, Mussolini had connived to make Ireland an appealing destination for his potential rival
By then, the Fiuman city-state had collapsed also, while a downcast D’Annunzio languished under house arrest on the shores of Lake Garda. Here, he fantasised about travelling to Ireland at the head of an expeditionary force of his former Fiuman soldiers who intended to enlist in the Munster IRA.
These musings alarmed Dublin once more.
For his part, de Valera suggested that D’Annunzio should instead try his luck in Moscow, “and from there march on India”. The reaction of D’Annunzio and Mussolini to this creative suggestion is not recorded.
Most likely, it proved especially disappointing to the latter man: resentful of his role as D’Annunzio’s understudy, and with high ambitions of his own, Mussolini had connived to make Ireland an appealing destination for his potential rival.
Fascist nervousness of D’Annunzio continued into 1922. On the eve of the notorious “March on Rome”, which might easily have had D’Annunzio rather than Mussolini at its head, the Duce’s erstwhile mentor survived a murder attempt that bore all the hallmarks of dark political intrigue.
Shaken by the failed assassination, D’Annunzio withdrew from public life, though he retained a relationship with Mussolini that revolved around bribery and feigned friendship.
Suitably compensated, D’Annunzio indulged expensive tastes in narcotics, art, and women.
However, he did not abandon politics completely. In the twilight of his life, he re-emerged to denounce Hitler and the diplomatic moves that foreshadowed the Axis “Pact of Steel”, which would formally tie fascist Italy to the Nazi orbit with disastrous consequences.